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Society at a Peak of Shared Misery
A popular solution to every problem always causes more problems.
Once upon a time I worked for the federal government as a postdoctoral researcher at a CDC branch that focuses on occupational safety and health. While I was there, I learned firsthand that the government operated at a level that was grossly inefficient and mind-numbingly bureaucratic. The longer I was there and the more I experienced the dysfunctional culture, the more it felt like trying to run while carrying a boulder. With no purpose or end.
In the federal government, doing research at even a minimum level requires navigating a byzantine maze of endless rules, regulations, and paperwork. If you don’t want to do your job at a minimum level, that’s fine, because it’s easier to coast than work hard. Less paperwork for you and for others, too.
Periodically, performing lab research involved dealing with lab safety inspectors, and since this was an institute that focused on occupational safety and health, they took their job very seriously. Despite my extensive experience in not getting myself or anyone else killed or injured in the course of my bench research, the safety people were always coming up with new regulations. Many of these regulations seemed to provide little safety benefit, and wasted much time. At no point, did the safety people say “OK, your research is safe. We’re done here.” Their job was to come up with regulations, so they did. Once, I ordered a new desk chair that took months to arrive. When it did, it was accompanied by two occupational safety specialists to help me set it up. I didn’t bother to ask why I need one, much less the help of two specialists.
The same dynamic was very clear in regulation of animal research. I use mice in my research because they are easy to breed, develop quickly, and have an immune system and physiology similar to other mammals, including humans. Obviously, a stratospheric number of biomedical discoveries wouldn’t have happened without mouse research. At my government position, I noticed that planning and executing animal research became more clogged in red tape each year, with the freedom to pursue observations to their mechanistic conclusion actively discouraged.
If a permanent government employee broke a regulation, they could not be fired. There was no real way to punish them. But what could be done was make a new regulation that was more burdensome than the last. Punishing an individual is hard. Punishing everyone for an individual’s behavior is much easier.
This ballooning load of government bureaucracy has spread to universities, where administrators and staff are now in charge, and faculty and researchers are more like renters or clients. In that environment, facilitating research isn’t always a top priority. As in the government, when regulators have a job, they will occasionally do it. I once observed an animal use committee claim a protocol was necessary for a campus organization to bring dogs on campus for the purpose of student stress-relief. In another instance, they claimed a display aquarium in a department hallway needed a protocol. None of this involved actual research, and these were fish, for crying out loud.
Once you are aware of this dynamic, you see it everywhere. In the public school district where my children go to school, in-person school is frequently moved to remote learning in the winter for any threat of snow (even just forecasted). Often, administrators cite potential conditions in rural areas of the county as a reason to suspend in-class learning. In other words, everyone goes to school, or no one goes to school. When I was a kid, children who couldn’t make it because of inclement weather were accomodated, but school usually went on.
The COVID-19 pandemic response was another example of this cultural shift. There is a growing number of people who are immune suppressed for a variety of reasons including chemotherapy for cancer or immune suppressive drug treatment for organ transplantation or a chronic immune-depleting infection. People in this situation have a lot more concerns about potential infections than healthy immune competent people. When the pandemic hit, it was obvious to many that immune suppressed and other vulnerable people might fare a lot worse than healthy individuals. Early evidence confirmed it. It thus made sense to focus our efforts on those vulnerable people, because that would cause the least collateral damage.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, many states and countries pursued a disastrous strategy of “Zero COVID,” resulting in much collateral damage for no consistent benefit. Many nations that went this route are now seeing significant increases in mortality. Maybe excess mortality could be put off, but not eliminated, like the virus itself. School closures in the United States had no effect on community spread of the virus, and caused tremendous harm to children, resulting in a shocking loss of learning, skyrocketing BMI, and increased abuse along with plummeting mental health. In this case, no special group was accomodated. The unique problems of a few few became everyone’s problem, with no benefit.
The desire for equal outcomes has always been problematic, because it runs completely contrary to reality and human nature. No matter how you slice it, not everyone is going to get a trophy or benefit from a shared sacrifice. Not everyone needs to share the unique challenges of every demographic. Furthermore, who determines when the outcomes are equal? At any rate, the answer is someone who has too much power over others with no incentive to actually benefit them. These problems become even more disastrous when applied at scale. Socialism is a prime example, which Winston Churchill framed its inherent virtue as “the equal sharing of misery.”
Hopefully, we are at a peak of shared misery, to be followed by a return of sanity.